Tuesday, August 28, 2012
Redefining Downtown's Westside
For well over a decade, Baltimore has tried to reclaim the Westside of its Downtown as the Retail and Shopping Mecca it was before the flight to the suburbs. There has been some success in attracting Residents here as evidenced in the population growth in the 2010 census but Major Retailers have avoided the Westside of Downtown. That's not to say Retailers have avoided Baltimore all together, quite the contrary it's just been in other part of the City. I will attempt to explain why Baltimore has evolved and what that means for the Westside of Downtown.
The flight to the suburbs and the threat of integration killed Downtown's Westside no doubt about it. Lexington and Howard was the intersection to envy if you were a Baltimore Department Store as this was where their Flagship stores once stood. The original locations of Hutzlers, Hoschild Kohn, Hechts, and Stewarts flanked this proud intersection. Not far was Brager Gautmans, McCrorys, and many many more. As Baltimore began losing population to the suburbs and these Department Stores began opening branches in said suburbs, sales in their Downtown Stores plummeted and they began scaling back services like Personal Shoppers and Same Day Home Delivery. Also these "Grand Dame" locations were made smaller until finally closing all together.
Downtown before the fight to the suburbs had loosely defined boundaries; first there was the Westside which was the Retail and Shopping District, there was the Central Business District which is largely where it is today (Charles Center) and then there was the Harbor. The Harbor served as an Industrial Port for Shipping, Manufacturing of everything from textiles to cans and everything in between.
In 1980 when Harbor Place opened the Inner Harbor was officially redefined. The once Industrial Port became a Retail and Recreationally oriented zone that began attracting the very Retailers that the Westside had lost and was trying to lure back. With the rebirth of the Inner Harbor Downtown began to expand itself including Neighborhoods Federal Hill, Fells Point, and Canton. These same Retailers began flocking to these Neighborhoods instead of the Westside. The opening of Inner Harbor and the future opening of Harbor Point will bring high end Retailers to these Neighborhoods as well.
Now where does this leave the Westside? After all, its identity as a Baltimore's Retail and Shopping Destination has been taken from it by the Inner Harbor and its Neighborhoods. It's not like the Westside can swap identities with what the Harbor used to be; an Industrial Port because we have entered a service oriented economy instead of a manufacturing one. That still didn't answer the question of how to redefine the Westside. City Planners haven't gotten it through their heads that the Westside can't once again be a Shopping District and that the boundaries of Downtown have been altered.
Despite not making much progress in the Retail department and there being trash on the streets as well as unmaintained roads and sidewalks, the westside of Downtown has gained population. This gain in population can be attributed to Historic Retail Buildings being converted into Apartments and Condos like the old Hechts and Stewarts Buildings.
I foresee the Westside of Downtown being converted into more of a Midtown District College Town like Bolton Hill, Mount Vernon, and Charles Village with convenience Retail, restaurants and pubs such as reopening the White Coffee Pot (pictured above). This should be relatively easy because there are lots of Colleges and Universities just a stone's throw away from Downtown's Westside. A big player to indicate activity in the Westside will be returning the entire Hutzler's Building to productive use. There are also Row House style Retail buildings that are vacant and would make great Residential conversions. Since they're quite narrow it might not be a bad idea to convert two into one to make them wide like those in the aforementioned communities.
Although successful Residential conversions are what have made the Westside of Downtown gain population its most important show case will not be such. The main attraction to the Westside will continue to be Lexington Market. Lexington Market should be expanded to include healthier vendors and more upscale foods as well.
There's a project that's been shelved next to Lexington Market that I think should be brought back to light; The Residences at Lexington Market. This mixed income housing development will consist of two high rise Apartment Buildings, a Condo Building, and 23 Town Homes built atop the parking garage pictured above.
In addition to being a world class Public Market and new upscale Residences, Lexington Market must also be the area's number one Transit Center. I've said it before and I'll say it again; the Red Line must go through Downtown and not around it and Lexington Market is a crucial stop for it because both existing lines meet there and to make the area a transit hub, multiple lines be it rail or bus will have to stop there. I think that the Red Line has the potential of making Lexington Market a true gem.
In Downtown's Westside, despite the population gain, there appear to be signs of disinvestment. The roads are in terrible shape as are the sidewalks and lighting could be better. Charles St. in Mount Vernon just completed a very attractive streetscape project that I think will complement the Westside of Downtown very well. The project included newly paved roads, new sidewalks, cross walks, additional street lights, and new traffic lights (pictured below.)
Now that Downtown's Retail and Shopping District has moved to Inner Harbor East and Harbor Point, we must now redefine the Westside of Downtown in order to breathe more new life into it.